Central Division Preview- Can Chicago Repeat?
It’s no secret this was going to be an offseason full of change for the Stanley Cup Champions. With the mega-contracts for superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane kicking in at $10.5M each, the team was pressed up against the salary cap before they even began their parade. Eight of the 18 skaters that played in the Cup-clinching finale are no longer with the team. But the question is, can they make another run with their core group?
The fact of the matter is that the 2015-16 Blackhawks are a top-heavy team. They have 8 players making $4M or more and 11 players making $1.05M or less. Granted, this is not the first time GM Stan Bowman has had to deal with a purge of players due to salary cap restraints. After winning the Cup in 2010, they were forced to trade Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, Colin Fraser, and Kris Versteeg. That doesn’t include losing Adam Burish, John Madden, Cristobal Huet, Nick Boynton, Kim Johnsson and Cup-winning goaltender Antti Niemi to free agency. The following season, Chicago backed their way into the playoffs as an 8-seed, being defeated by Vancouver in the 1st round.
You can debate which offseason was worse in regards to losing talent, but the same core group of Toews, Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are still around. Their most significant losses this summer came up front where the depth at forward was their biggest asset. With Brandan Saad and Patrick Sharp being traded away, along with losing free agents Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette, the lines will go through quite a bit of change. Although they got Artem Anisimov back in the Saad deal and promptly signed him to a long-term extension, losing Saad was not part of Bowman’s plan. As of today, the Blackhawks are still $189k over the salary cap after Bryan Bickell cleared waivers. With rosters due by tomorrow afternoon, another move is likely to be made by Bowman. Even if they send Bickell down to the AHL, that only saves them $950k in cap space, meaning they can only call up a forward making a minimal salary in order to be cap-compliant.
The blue line relied almost exclusively on their top 4 of Keith, Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya during their playoff run. Chicago acquired Trevor Daley as part of the Patrick Sharp deal to solidify that number 4 spot. As was the case last year, their bottom defensive pairing is up in the air and will likely be very much protected regardless of who makes the cut. Veteran Michal Rozsival and a trio of 24-yr olds in David Rundblad, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Viktor Svedberg are all fighting for the last couple spots, with Rozsival being the only one coach Joel Quenneville had any confidence in a season ago. They were able to hide their lack of depth in the playoffs, but over the long haul of an 82-game season, that’s likely to be exposed eventually.
Between the pipes is a man that is in my opinion, the most over-paid, over-rated goaltender in the NHL, Corey Crawford. Chicago’s hard-core fans will argue that he ‘just wins’ and ‘look how many Cups he has!’ Niemi won a Cup most of the same great talent and coaching in front of him as well. The fact is he got bailed out by Scott Darling after giving up 9 goals in 4 periods through the first two games of the post-season against Nashville. An interesting factoid about the Preds… that’s the 3rd time they’ve lost a playoff series after they’ve chased the starting goalie. Moving on….
There was something else that happened this summer involving Chicago that I’m sure I’ve forgotten to mention. Ah yes…. Patrick Kane and his fait accompli summer of stupid decisions. We all know about him and a cousin beating up a cab driver over a dispute back in 2009, because who HASN’T beaten someone up over 20 cents, right? Then pictures of him partying in a limo during a road trip to Vancouver, another drinking incident on Cinco de Mayo in 2012, rumors of having an affair with teammate Patrick Sharp’s wife, and now, a rape investigation. The number of Chicagoans that defend his behavior is as amazing as his puck-handling skills. With the investigation still ongoing, Kane was still welcomed with open arms when camp began a few weeks ago and the crowd roared their approval. It’s not just the fans though. The team also has a Patrick Kane bobble-head giveaway this season, sponsored by Chicagoland and NW Indiana Chevy. Good luck to those sponsors. I’m not saying he’s guilty, but let’s be honest, his history doesn’t paint a flattering picture on his character. In his own words, he’s admitted that the players on this team are like rock stars and with that fame, comes consequences. Assuming he gets off without punishment, he needs to either stop drinking, or stop putting himself in compromising situations. Unfortunately, I don’t see him doing either.
When April rolls around, this team will be in the playoffs because they have too much high-end talent not to. However, Cup contenders and champions are built around depth up front, a solid top-4 D core and timely goaltending. Although they got some nice pieces in return for Saad and Sharp, this team isn’t close to what they were last season. Barring an unforeseen trade of a top-end player, this team they have now is what they’ll go into the playoffs with as they have no wiggle room to acquire anyone else. Much like they did in 2011, I see an early exit for Chicago with a third place finish in the Central.